Film review: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Peter Jackson serves up another distended pile of his patented Middle-earth mulch, writes Donald Clarke
Film Title: The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug
Director: Peter Jackson
Starring: Ian McKellen, Martin Freeman, Richard Armitage, Benedict Cumberbatch, Evangeline Lilly
Running Time: 161 min
The second film in Peter Jackson’s epic attenuation of JRR Tolkien’s The Hobbit arrives just two weeks after the release of the charming, sentimental Saving Mr Banks. That film, concerning Disney’s efforts to bring Mary Poppins to the screen, seemed to argue that, when adapting a novel, the text should be treated as little more than a jumping-off point. One should try and include as many of the original characters as possible. The general gist of the story should be retained. But the urge for fidelity should always be subsidiary to the taut dynamics of Mother Cinema.
How times have changed. If Tolkien were sitting with Jackson during production meetings, he would, one imagines, fast become suffocated in eager acquiescence. Is this door frame in the correct proportions? Will this hat do?
Jackson doesn’t even permit characters to leave the room without looking to the late author for advice on their hitherto off-stage activities. Readers of The Hobbit will recall that Gandalf vanishes for large sections of the novel’s central trudge. Bravely ploughing his way through The Silmarillion (not a task you would wish on your worst enemy), Jackson and his writers have located some adventure involving yet more journeying and yet more meetings with sombre eminences. To Mount Whatsit with you, Ian McKellen, and bring Sylvester McCoy along for the ride.
The story has been so stretched and diluted that no structure remains discernable. Getting your head around the wider narrative is like attempting to discern the shape of a galaxy by staring at one island in one ocean on one planet. Immersion is all.
Having got all that off our chests, we grudgingly admit that the second part of The Hobbit is significantly better than the first. (This may, of course, be a case of Attack of the Clones Syndrome: The Phantom Menace was so awful, anything better then cinematic effluent would seem tolerable.) There is less washing up. There is more action. There are no renditions of Mungle not me Greebles. True, there is no Gollum either. But – though, like everything else, vastly overextended – the scenes with Smaug (voiced lusciously by Benedict Cumberbatch) come close to making up for that unavoidable loss.
After a clever prologue, we find ourselves back with Bilbo Baggins (consistently excellent Martin Freeman) and his largely homogenous band of dwarfs as they make their way towards the Lonely Mountain and Smaug’s treasure. Thorin Oakenshield, the most aggressive of the number, seeks to reclaim his crown. Others are Northern Irish. At least one is Scottish.
Along the way, they encounter various elongated adventures and the odd exercise in retrospective gender correction. Evangeline Lilly attempts to dispel Tolkien’s Senior Common Room fug as a female elf who made no appearance in the old chap’s work. Orlando Bloom comes sloping back to the place of his invention. The detour to the damp canals of Lake-town involves some delicious virtual locations and permits Stephen Fry to harrumph amusingly as a corpulent elder.
The environments are sufficiently well realised (if a little grey) and the set pieces sufficiently exciting (the barrel escape is particularly good) to dispel memories of the first episode’s interminable scene-setting.
The Desolation of Smaug is, however, barely a film at all. Sir Peter’s Patent Middle-earth Mulch is a product of the very highest quality. But its substance changes little from bucket to bucket. Another year comes and we are offered another load to spread about the place. All of which is a long-winded way of saying you already have a good idea what this film is like. The time really has come to move on.